Tag Archives: music for prepared guitar

February 2017 – upcoming London gigs – sound rummagings at New River Studios with Cos Chapman’s Open Jack Takeover 5 (1st)

30 Jan

Cos Chapman's Open Jack Takeover 5, 1st February 2017Cos Chapman presents:
Cos Chapman’s Open Jack Takeover 5: Cos Chapman + Mowgli & The Slate Pipe Banjo Draggers + Jowe Head + Electric Elizabeth + The Moon and Madness
New River Studios, Ground Floor Unit E, 199 Eade Road, Manor House, London, N4 1DN, England
Wednesday 1st February 2017, 6.00pm
– free event (suggested donation: £5.00) – information

Experimental guitarist Cos Chapman is leading another of his experimental music evenings at New River at the start of February. Here’s a quick summary of Cos’ work, assembled from various web-flotsam press spurts and publicity bios, including a summary by experimental flautist Isnaj Dui:

“Cos Chapman observes his guitar as if unconscious, under anaesthetic. Laid down and barely touched, distress signals and drones emit from its innards. In live improvisation, Chapman utilises a series of drill bits, pendulums and homemade mechanisms to lay siege to the seemingly lifeless instrument. Playful and cerebral, Chapman’s work recalls early Kraftwerk as he creates a sonic heart and soul from basic electronics that are expertly manipulated. Interested in cross art-form collaborations and soundtracks, Cos began his working life as an oceanographer: throughout this time he experimented extensively with sound, using modified reel-to-reel and self-built devices; after twelve years he went to Lancaster University to study Music, Technology and Theatre, then did a PhD at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge. His portfolio of compositions includes work for piano and “tape”, live processing of soprano saxophone, video and installations: His soundtracks have been heard on Resonance FM and at national events including the Manchester Short Film Festival, Newcastle Vain Festival, Sonic Arts Network Expo! in Manchester, Thames Tideway Project and Anna Chen’s Taikonaut.”

Also on the bill are the working duo of Mowgli (cross-tech multi-media artist and player of the Zenoid audiovisual synth) and The Slate Pipe Banjo Draggers (aka field-recordings juggler and one-string MIDI bass player Andy Rowe). A regularly teamed item for five years, they’ve been playing their mashes of translated light patterns, invented instrumentation and improvised electronica around various European festivals and events for five years. While the Slate Pipe work is centred on a strangely comforting version of factory-noise dub, the Mowgli collaboration (on the evidence of the Mariscao live video below) is more along the lines of pattering analogue ambient techno with a off-kilter industrial edge, accompanied by swirling mathematical visuals.

 
The loop’n’patch alter ego of Zoe Um, Electric Elizabeth came into being two Novembers ago when Zoe decided to create a performance persona for the Noisevember project. Based around on Audacity software and various glitching, friable, fry-able devices, her work picks up the mundane and weaves it through concealed processes, structures and rhythms to render something both everyday and beautiful.


 
Two of Cos’ companions from the “post-punk/art rock/dark cabaret” band Rude Mechanicals are also joining the evening. Cos will be teaming up with Rude Mechanicals frontwoman Miss Jo Roberts in spin-off duo The Moon And Madness (which played the previous Open Jack, and which they describe as being “more experimental” than the Weimar sprach-funk tendencies of the parent band) while bass player jowehead.com Jowe Head (originally from Swell Maps and Television Personalities, now a journeying mult-instrumental punky experimentalist) will be performing an undefined solo set of his own.

DJ sets for the evening come from Steve New Wave – “the clue is in the name.”
 

April 2016 – upcoming gigs – two for April 16th: the third Festival Ambient de Paris with Ujjaya, Asmorod and others; and roaring about in London with Godzilla Black plus cohorts.

15 Apr

Tomorrow – two cities, two gigs. In Paris, people will be filing into the mediaeval cellars, all serious and attentive, fascinated by texture and the warp and weft of sound. In London, it looks as if they’ll be torn between wanting to be handsome psychotic brutes in sharp suits or shabby, demented hermits in bird masks.

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3ieme Festival Ambient de Paris, 2016 3ieme Festival Ambient de Paris
Crypt du Martyrium de Saint-Denis, 11 rue Yvonne Le Tac, 75018 Paris, France
Saturday 16th April 2016, 4.00pm
– more information here and here

From the organisers…

”Crypt du Martyrium is the most mystic and secret of Paris crypts (the head of the first bishop Denis was found here in 300 AD, and it was also the birthplace of the Jesuit Society). For one night only, artists from Paris and its suburbs will enchant this unique historical place with the kind of music you will hardly hear anywhere else in France.

The festival welcomes :

Ujjaya – an French ethno-ambient veteran, deeply influenced by Robert Rich, Steve Roach, Jon Hassell and Jorge Reyes. With his new found interest in suspended gamelan (which he’ll be enchanting the crypt with tonight), Loren Nerell has become another point of reference for his ongoing work. (For more information, try one or both of his two free-to-download albums: ‘De Retour’ and ‘The Master of Crossroads’.)


 
Onde Poussière – an experimental duo specializing in hypnotic minimalism and controlled chaos, and featuring Doedelzak (synth) and Kecap Tuyul (table-top prepared guitar). Think an ambient version of Jim O’Rourke , Taku Sugimoto or even Autechre.


 
Patrick Wiklacz – also known as Prats – is influenced by Terry Riley, Klaus Schulze and Bernard Parmeggiani. He will unleash his own electronic universe on synth and MIDI controller – a mix of repetitive minimalism, ambient and electro-acoustic music.


 
Archetype – an heir to Oöphoi, Alio Die and Mathias Grassow (and performing on guitar , synth, voice and table harp)Archetype makes deep listening music and also plays some ethno-ambient music not unlike Dead Can Dance.


 
Asmorod – the founder of the Snowblood label, synth/keyboard player Asmorod is both very discreet and very influential in the dark ambient scene (he’s an acknowleged influence on Kammarheit’s ‘Hysope’ album).


 

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Godzilla Black + Bobbie Peru + Punching Swans + Mashiro
The Hope & Anchor, 207 Upper Street, Islington, London, N1 1RL, England
Saturday 16th April 2016, 7.00pm
more information

Godzilla Black + Bobbie Peru + Punching Swans + Mashiro, 16th April 2016Godzilla Black have been unsettling ears since 2006 with their own personal brand of depraved heaviness. This is the official launch party for their new album, ‘Press The Flesh’, which was released on 1st April through Quisling Records. ‘Press The Flesh’ is the most ‘normal’ Godzilla Black record to date, drawing on influences such as Cardiacs, Liars and The Jesus Lizard, underscored by feeling of sensuality in all the wrong places. ACCEPT NO IMITATIONS.”

I may have to revise that “James-Barry-in-a-sleetstorm” description with which I always saddle Godzilla Black. Listening through to ‘Press The Flesh’ reveals the band in all of their romping glory, sometimes sounding like gonzo-industrial hero Foetus hijacking a soul revue, sometimes like late Cardiacs channelling early Roxy. Glam-descends meet blaring beefhorns, with lyrics full of dark jokes and carnivorous, cannibalistic disassociation. They’re flowering into something sharky and vivid. Clips below for album opener ‘The Other Other White Meat’ and the first ‘Press The Flesh’ single, ‘First Class Flesh’ (note that there’s a theme developing here…)


In support are Bobbie Peru, whose music is heavily influenced by punk, post-punk, rockabilly and 60’s garage; and who offer “an abrasively grooving electric live show with a vibe somewhere between Sonic Youth, Nomeansno and Groop Dogdrill.” Currently recording their third full-length album in Manchester (and constantly playing live around the north-west of England), the band are something of a fixture in the world of indie and post-punk tours, having racked up road support slots with Black Francis, Buzzcocks, Spear Of Destiny, Killing Joke and The Fall since their own emergence in the mid-2000s.

Medway convulsers Punching Swans are self-described as “thrilling dischordance for fans of Future Of The Left and Fugazi”, although I can hear hints of The Residents lurking in their threshing pop-savvy upending of rituals, and when they’re not hammering alarmingly at a darker idea they’re out on the whoop chasing the spirit of ‘Song 2’. It’s the cryptic strangeness that makes them special, though – they’ve recently brought out a concept album about “a man cast out from society and taking on the habits and compulsions of a depraved bird, gone to seed,”, and are making the woodsbound videos to match. There’s a peek into this particular world below.

Oxford abstract mathcore metallists Masiro bring “heaviness, other-wordly atmosphere and headfuck grooves. Touching on Pelican, Isis and Battles. Don’t expect a singalong.” All right, then. Evidence of their jabbing attention-deficit methods is here:

 
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More shortly…
 

REVIEW – G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’ double album, 1998 (“grand painterly instincts”)

3 May

G.P. Hall: 'Steel Storms & Tender Spirits'

G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’

Despite the luminous loveliness of much of his music, the career of style-hopping guitarist G.P. Hall hasn’t been smooth (even by the uneven standards of the experimental music he dips in and out of). Regardless, ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’ shows that he’s still up for taking a gamble.

A trust-risking double-album package, clearly intended to emphasize his dynamic musical dialectic, it also highlights the tension between his experimental side and his taste for romantic melody. There’s one disc of rough treatment (industrial noise-layering, screaming electricity) and one of ear-stroking pastoralism (the natural sound of wood and air, tickled by occasional breaths of spectral electronics). However, with Hall being who he is, the two ideas tend to bleed back together: in some cases, maybe more than was intended.

The ‘Steel Storms’ half of the set features a wealth of Hall’s “industrial sound sculptures”. Layered compositions played on his stock of prepared-and-processed guitars (via plectrum, fingertips, battery fans, velcro and more), they also make cunning use of assorted noise-makers ranging from scavenged autoharps and scrap metal to oven racks and household bricks. Texture is the predominant element in the music, but a surprising tunefulness and dark melodies often penetrate in the form of solemn classical adagios. It’s these which underpin the clattering chains, metallic rasps and harmonics of Industrial Sights, or the billowing clouds of rolling fragmented piano and wrenching distortion in Eye Saw It 2.

There’s an impressive documentary flamboyance at hand, too. When the insistently ringing, collapsing-steel groan-tones of Tsunami blend with both close-up atonal jangles of autoharp and with distant, skinny guitar-string shivers, the visual qualities of Hall’s music are particularly clear. Some of his work here wanders out to a distant edge. Two tracks in particular, Steel Storms and Steel Landscape, are almost wholly abstract – musical testaments to metal fatigue and the disorientating feel of post-industrial spaces. Grumbling, malignant loops and glittering boils of guitar drown in swills of rattling shard-metal and bass-drum booms. The pieces are laced with elephantine bursts of distortion; and with brief, dying surfacings of chemical-corroded blues playing.

Throughout, Hall’s grand painterly instincts tug the sound closer towards beauty – however twisted – than towards flat and impersonal horror. A whole album of such Hall industrialisms would be something to treasure. Unfortunately, ‘Steel Storms’ is continually gate-crashed by other sides of his musical personality. On River Flow, he revives one of his signature approaches: fluent Spanish guitar over detailed rolls of textural soundscaping. It’s as lovely as ever, but it’s misplaced here; and it’s anybody’s guess as to what Gypsy Gathering (a virtually straight piece of flamenco) is doing on the record.

In cases like these, Hall’s distracted eclecticism undermines the original intent of ‘Steel Storms’. Worse comes when that willing, stubborn naivety which lies at the heart of his music (giving it both its emotional strength and its core of idealism) becomes diluted into reproducing other people’s cliches. Since the mid-’90s, Hall has been an enthusiastic miner of his past work, dicing up his out-of-print albums to recombine their contents in new sequences. Often this has worked out well, juxtaposing his newer, tuneful solo tapestries with older, intriguing avant-jazz duets, trios and quartets (often featuring sundry members of Isotope, Gilgamesh or Nucleus). Unfortunately, on this occasion he’s pulled up some dross along with the gems.

Perhaps Hall’s work in library music during the lean years is to blame. He’s too interesting a musician to produce stock blandness (and even his failures have moments of interest) but on a record with a purpose, these lesser scraps should have stayed on the shelf. Yet several ‘Steel Storms’ tracks come from this lifeless batch, splotched with anonymous moves and tinny keyboard presets. No Man’s Land is drab robotic cop-chase stuff, the kind of thing a particularly cheesed-off Mark Knopfler might clunk out at the dull end of a soundtrack contract. The less said about the appalling Barbed Wire Bop (brittle ‘Seinfeld’ plastic-funk with the tones of a dodgy synth-demo) the better.

Happily, other ‘Steel Storms’ approaches are much more successful, toying fruitfully with the tight blare of fiesta horns, or with a kind of impressionistic stadium rock held together with paper-clips. The rainy-night drive of City Signals funnels determined loose-jointed funk elements through cascades of drumming, a marching-call trumpet leading the tune above Hall’s steel-saw guitar chops. On Docklands, an acoustic guitar explores and ranges over washing licks of soundscape; electric guitars swipe between factory-machine screeches and trumpet blasts; an echoing hip-hop beat – blind, gigantic and mechanical – stumbles through the landscape beyond.

Sometimes, everything comes together. Though centered on the aggressive, questioning rawness of an up-close flamenco guitar, B-E-trayed provides a discreet light-industrial twist to its traditional base, dragging its intermittent sheath of noises back into the realm of the personal. Already bouncing off tricky drumbox beats, it heads into more sinister areas when swarming, echoing drones and bitter laughter flicker across the speakers. At one point, Hall yells cathartically into the soundhole of his guitar.

All interesting, but the industrial theme becomes increasingly tenuous over the course of the record, though it does rally at points. Heavily overdriven cutting-blade sounds return for Fiya, in which blurred polluted riffs meet mournfully defiant Latin horns and gut-strung guitar. On Dancing On Cracking Ice the guitar plays a supporting role to mariachi horns (and to Sam Brown’s exploratory world-rock rattle of percussion), as Hall’s chopping slashing echoes and metal-fatigue string groans lead off into a leisurely Latin funk stretch. Funk is also one of the central elements of Battery Charger, colliding with big-band horns and space-rock as Hall’s snappy twang-melodies and jittering string harmonics are bounced through some serious Ash Ra Tempel echo.

While there’s no shortage of ideas and impressiveness on ‘Steel Storms’, as an album it’s a missed opportunity – too bitty, too unstructured, and not quite ruthless enough to do justice to its theme. You can dive in for the more thrilling patches – and hold your nose at the bad points – but at times it’s the wrong kind of bumpy ride. Fortunately, its companion album compensates for the missteps by being an experience of unqualified and perfectly integrated beauty.

Where ‘Steel Storms’ shows Hall straining after too many things at once, ‘Tender Spirits’ showcases a beautifully focused vision. Dominated by his acoustic playing and by the subtler side of his electrophonic treatments (sometimes heightened by softly resonant brass and drums), it sounds as if it was recorded under a great cool bowl of night sky. It also proves that, however much energy he puts into his experimentalism, he remains a superbly expressive guitarist once the trickery is removed. Here, the wise simplicity and romance at the center of his music come into their own, in full.

Judging by many of the pieces here, classical music lost a fine player and interpreter in Hall when he went left-field, not to mention a fine folk-fusion composer. Listen to those Spanish arpeggios (mournfully meditative on Love Lies Bleeding, restless and subtly unresolved on Slipstreams) or to the singing Irish ballad inflections of Patricia O’Leary. Alternatively, enjoy Hall’s subtle reunion with electricity on Shooting Stars, Ember or Dandelion Clocks. The first two are slow astral wheelers, their notes stroked into long, long, beautifully smudged trails and pining crystalline tubes of sound; the last is chuckling child-music, clean notes bubbled through a sparkling halo of echo.

Hall’s more multi-tracked and constructed compositions fit just as seamlessly into the mood. Some are familiar – here’s another outing for the thrumming bowed-bass winter scenery of Miles From No-Where (White Wilderness), a piece which Hall continually revisits. Similarly, there’s a new version of another favourite, Spirit Sky Montana, in which David Ford’s sleepy flugelhorn and Sam Brown’s slow swish of cymbal pull Hall’s stretched-bell guitar layers and church-music structure up to further heights of passionate serenity. A more ambiguous moment is granted on Incandescence, where a baroque six-string bass is smeared into dark and swollen horn sounds, voicing in shifting minor-key planes, searching for a place to settle.

However, it’s the magnificent Lonely Road which shows Hall at his very best. Loose, hanging drapes of luscious sound, distant detonating percussion, his Spanish guitar upfront again with a heart-tugging melody, and a final DIY touch – this time, a lonely and beautifully frail harmonica part. This is music you could live in. There’s a direct, emotional involvement in G.P. Hall’s work that’s rarely found among experimental musicians – probably because in spite of his gizmos and his taste for modernist expression he connects far deeper with the earthy roots of music than with the narrowed, exclusive intellectual demands of music as a science.

Ultimately, the main reason that ‘Tender Spirits’ is stronger than ‘Steel Storms’ is that in spite of Hall’s fascination with the impact of industrialism on our lives and senses, he knows it’s merely a part of our experience of the world: a relatively recent human-scale derangement overlaying much older terrain and themes. The two superb acoustic pieces which open and close ‘Tender Spirits’ could easily predate the factories, machinery and artefacts that inspire his industrial sound sculptures; both being intimately concerned with human survival within the simpler, starker hostilities of nature itself.

For the majestic impressionist-flamenco study of Sandstorm, Hall’s fingers slither out whips of string noise among the sharp and fluttering notes, conjuring up the flying dust. Sea Sorrow (Lament Of Lewis) is at the other end of the scale: a paean to shipwrecked souls in which Spanish guitar technique merges with a plaintive Celtic air. Within it, bitter bereavement struggles with acceptance and an awareness of continuance. Those who live with the sea are sustained by it and robbed by it, and this feeling lives in the music. As visual as anything Hall comes up with via loops and layers and implements, the plangent tones of this naked acoustic piece shape an image of someone alone and bleak on the headland, staring out at the ambiguous and often-merciless ocean which they must ultimately come to terms with.

It’s true that G.P. Hall’s road is, ultimately, a lonely one – sometimes assured, sometimes erratic, always marginalised. Yet it’s always one which he treads with a stubborn faith – wrong steps and slip-ups notwithstanding – and one that makes him all the more unique.

G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (786497264421)
CD/download double album
Released: 1st October 1998

Get it from:
Future Music Records (CD only) or Bandcamp (download-only, as two separate albums, ‘Steel Storms‘ and ‘Tender Spirits

G.P. Hall online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp YouTube

REVIEW – G.P. Hall: ‘Marks On The Air’ live album, 1998 (“a rough’n’ready homemade ethos”)

22 Sep

G.P. Hall: 'Marks On The Air'

G.P. Hall: ‘Marks On The Air’


On ‘Marks On The Air’ (an album of live recordings from concerts in London and Wiltshire), the eccentricity and affections of British experimental guitarist G.P. Hall is presented wide open and unashamed.

To make the record, Hall teamed up with binaural recording whiz Mike Skeet. It’s Skeet’s voice you can hear bookending the concert – running up stairs and heading down in lifts, describing his surroundings with the nattering enthusiasm of a ‘Playschool’ presenter, and popping any remaining hopes of arty detachment. Still, it somehow adds to the warmth of the atmosphere which Hall’s live playing induces. Apart for the oddly truncated applause and the removal of Hall’s shy, uncontrived audience chat, it’s as close to one of his concerts as you’re going to get without leaving your home. Skeet’s superb recording techniques (his binaural miking technology directly mimicking the listening experience of ears on a human head) presents this music in the enveloping, directly tactile environment it requires.

Compared to the more assured sonic constructions you’ll find on a Hall album, ‘Marks On The Air’ is less sophisticated and more risky, but it’s equally ambitious. Skeet’s interjections aside, this is a one-man show. It relies entirely on how much Hall can get out of his hands and his immediate music loops while still keeping an audience entertained. With four separate speaker stacks, an assorted collection of guitars and effects pedals, and the armoury of unorthodox guitar-abusing sundries which he uses as playing implements (bows and battery fans, crocodile clips and Velcro, toy cars and electric razors), Hall is at least well-armed to do that, Even the clean, dated, digital rattle-and-thunk of his 1980s rhythm box lends the enterprise an endearing extra dimension of naivety.

Hall’s pictorial – even painterly – approach to music is consistent throughout. New England Woods is cut from the same lambent aural cloth which Hall made his own with Spirit Sky Montana – swelling curtains of sounds midway between country steel guitar and cello parts strolling and dallying in a soft adagio. Docklands attempts to recreate the brazenly lively colourfulness of a polluted industrial sunset – the shambling drums falling lopsided, the whooshing saw-sounds and lemon-sharp guitar echoes pressing out the shape of the skyline.

Live, however, Hall can be tempted away from his more elegant pastoral confections and into heavier statements. The impressionistic heavy metal of City Signals and Uncharted Territory both offer searing and swaggering chromium-blue lead lines, plenty of echoed backings and slow rolling pummels of drum-sound. Rippling, prolonged ambient humming and field recordings of indistinct conversation fill the gaps, like smog pouring into a heat-haze. For the tremendous scrunch of Flying Ants, Hall turns to his six-string bass and his flamenco knowledge. The result sounds like an over-scaled Gypsy guitar played with helicopter blades for fingernails. A delightfully yobbish take on the form, it flicks between tremendous chocolate-y gurgles of sound and (when Hall kicks in the distortion pedal) impenetrable hedges of distorted overload.

Much of this music is punctuated by clipped and plunking programmed synth-bass lines. Outside of mid-’80s chart hits, these ought to sound cheap and unpleasant. Instead, they fit surprisingly well into Hall’s musical sketches of the grubbier side of cities. They can be as brash and tacky as scattered burger boxes at your feet; as the failing neon signs and fly-by-night minicab firms gummed onto and into frowning old brickwork. On Flying Ants, they’re just appealingly cyborg. On Figments Of Imagination – where they’re working alongside metallic wails, hand-pumped stutters of echo and the rattle of crocodile clips – they add to the rough’n’ready homemade ethos of the music.

The hypnotic On Every Life (A Little Rain Must Fall) goes further into the wilderness. Nodding to Native American rhythm patterns, it calls up the feel of a parched Arizonan desert view. The delicate whine and rush of the guitar patterns swap between impressions of the dry, red heat and dust and of the shocking whiteness and colours of the tasselled fragments of cloud. Notes call and repeat, tranced out. Towards the end there’s a moment when it all stops. All but a faint swirling echo, as if the whole desert was looking upwards; and then the mass of sound crams back in again, like a cloudburst.

Best of all, perhaps, is the build- up of The Lonely Road, coalescing sustained, sorrowful coats of sound and small factory noises. Tinges of ambient-blues embrace a tired old worker’s knotted muscles at the end of the day. Part of the human focus comes in via the twanging, Frisell pluck’n’pang of Hall’s guitar. It’s capped, however, by the endearingly rough burst of busker’s harmonica which he wafts over the floating sorrow. Brave and defiant, it’s answered in kind by the elephant-trumpet of a rotary-saw sound.

Despite the odd bit of bluster, ‘Marks On The Air’ goes further towards expressing Hall’s gently appealing emotional nakedness as player and creator. What he sometimes loses in the grace stakes, he gains back in honesty and sympathy. There are a couple of unselfconscious, winning little cameos of “tiny music” which could have come from a children’s theatre. Drum sounds pop and clatter against the clipped melody and zither-blues intonation of Chinese Firecrackers. Suvi’s Little Crickets is built out of simple yet exquisite acoustic child-song patterns, which regularly rests while Hall circles a boxful of mechanical insects, chirping peacefully, around his microphone. Further hints into the private man are suggested by the deep pulsing chant of Alcharinga (in which guitars are abandoned altogether, in favour of throat-singing through an old answering machine mike). Marks On The Air itself is a long, mournful study on classical guitar – swept back and forth in eddies of echo, resigning itself beautifully to its own impermanence.

G.P. Hall manages to be many things. The garage player amongst the avant-garde; the warm-hearted soft touch among the arthouse players. The naive wonderstruck kid in the crowd of post-adolescent posers, the transfigurer of the straight, and the benevolent ghost in the machinery. Not a bad set of credentials, at that.

G.P. Hall: ‘Marks On The Air’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (7 86497 26442 1)
CD-only album
Released: 1998

Buy it from:
G.P. Hall homepage or Future Music Records

G.P. Hall online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp YouTube

REVIEW – G.P. Hall: ‘Mar-Del-Plata’ album, 1997 (“ranges with restless compassion across a wide field”)

10 Jun
G.P. Hall: 'Mar-Del-Plata'

G.P. Hall: ‘Mar-Del-Plata’

Still clearing out the accumulated tapes of an inexplicably neglected career, Graham Peter Hall is continuing to come up with the goods. He’s been through thirty years of uneasy development on that rocky, unrewarding terrain between the simple sureties of the rock and roots instrumentalist and the often complacent indulgences of the full-on avant-garde blower. Marginalisation and bad luck might have ensured that he’s received little financial reward – nor has he gained the kind of brittle, precious reputation that marks out the darlings of the art-music intelligentsia – but it has resulted in a stock of lovely, emotive music in its own right.

Certainly Hall has managed to remain one of Britain’s most individual and complete guitarists over that time. Mastering a variety of styles from flamenco to rock to folk and blues, he’s also immersed himself in experimentation via technology – multiple speakers and pedal processors; vast, slow delay loops. Additionally, he draws on a repertoire of bizarre playing techniques and plectrum substitutes (involving battery fans, tiny psaltery bows, electric razors, toy cars and velcro, among others) which reflects the reinvention of guitar function explored by Fred Frith or Keith Rowe. With these methods in place, he’s explored sound through the textural suggestions of his “industrial sound sculptures”. Light industry, that is – Hall’s mimicry is closer to handsaws and governor motors rather than, say, Trent Reznor’s car-crushers and stamping presses.

Yet in amongst this, Hall has somehow never lost the ability to embrace expressive tunes; or to weave a handrail of familiarity into his sonic constructions. Perhaps that’s why ‘Wire’ types don’t seem to go for him; why he doesn’t have the kudos that the likes of Rowe, Frith, Eugene Chadbourne or Glenn Branca enjoy. He can get in your face – or wander off the usual path – with the best of them, but it’s generally in order to touch your sympathies. Ironically, in choosing to express his conservative and traditional side as equally important to (and entwined with) his avant-garde side, he’s gone too far for some.

‘Mar-Del-Plata’ is by far the most accessible and diverse of the compiled albums which Hall has been assembling this decade from deleted vinyl and assorted unreleased tapes. It’s a tour across a loose, but affecting, composing and performing imagination which ranges with restless compassion across a wide field. Sometimes you’re listening to a skittering, wilful flamenco performance. Sometimes it sounds like Cocteau Twins doing home improvements in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it’s the sort of individual, humanistic free improv/New Music result which you’d expect from Frith at his more lighthearted and relaxed, or from Simon H. Fell.

But though the record is full of experimentalism, Hall’s sense of melody is at the forefront – and the predominant voice on ‘Mar-Del-Plata’ is his masterfully expressive Spanish guitar playing. This can usually be found angling over long aching stretches of choral electronic humming, plangent violin and eerie ambient sounds called up from the industrial processors. In some ways it’s like a semi-unplugged take on a Robert Fripp Soundscape, in which guitar textures span out into infinity.

At other times, it takes on the simple directness of a folk tune: a dance of sparkling acoustic lights on Ionian Water, or the staccato accented Latin melodies of Mar-Del-Plata itself, underpinned by a geological murmur of bass. On the final hot gusting of Sierra Morena Dust Storm, the gut strings spit and scatter in rich melody, reaching new heights of sinewy passion. Here, Hall also bows some winnowing textures in his electric guitar accompaniment, using serrated steel bars from his box of implements.

Where technology plays a more direct role, Hall’s humanity doesn’t falter or go under. The hymnal swells of billowing electric warmth on Spirit Sky Montana (somewhere between Bill Frisell’s cinematic romance and David Torn’s eccentric string-warps) are the most beautiful and enveloping sound on the record, tapping deeply into church music and Romantic classical composing. The trickle of wind chimes, langorous piano, and enveloping sighs of Humidity Despair provide a gusting, luxurious impression of a sultry night: it’s lush enough to lean right back into.

Some tracks, fleshed out by Hall’s sound-loops and D.I.Y. treatments, are detailed, impressionistic oil-paintings in music and tone. Deep Blue sounds like someone chainsawing up a frozen Alpine lake, its jangling piano chords and thumping bass a mass of irregularities. The smear of bright spring-loaded colourflow on Charmouth Beach rings beautiful alarm bells. The menacing bass growl of Enigmatic is like a cave-bear thumping around in your dreams: squeaks and rattles from fingerboard and autoharp move around in slow disquiet, enclosed by knocking metal.

Plutonium Alert (in which Hall abandons guitar altogether in favour of soprano sax and the ring of auto-harps) treads similar territory to the ominous King Crimson improvisations from the mid-’70s. It goes for an all-out sensory mix of apocalyptic aftertones: angular bell-sounds and aggressive Grappelli violins entangling themselves with a spasmodically awkward funk rhythm. Weirdest (and most satisfying) of all is Fahrenheit 451 – juddering guitar, saw sounds, the shriek of a whistling kettle, and treble scratching all mix like toxic vapours under heavy pressure, pushing your head back against your rising hackles. Horribly enjoyable.

The scattered effects of the attempt to capture all of Hall’s ideas across a single CD does mean that ‘Mar-Del- Plata’ misses out on the cohesion which would render it excellent, but it’s a close-run thing. The centrepiece – a long-form creation called The Estates – pulls all the elements of the album together. A version of a 1975 long-form composition, it blends the chiming, restless clatter of its improv ensemble with Hall’s own quiveringly angry solo acoustic guitar. The brooding theme of The Estates is the crappiness and autocracy of post-war British urban programming. In thrall to modernism without being able to master it, its utopian vision (heartily botched and compromised) laid down a blight on communities, their architecture and their cohesion wrecked by the same tower blocks and support links designed to improve them.

Hall and co. express the disillusion and neurosis which resulted, with pulses of frustration and alienation hurl themselves against the confines of the music. Dulcimers, clarinets, and a huge array of percussion all seethe and pant over twenty-five minutes of desperate musical invocation; all overhung by the forbidding scrapes and alarm-clangs of two adapted metal piano frames (played like harps with assorted chains, wires, and implements). Hall’s panic-stricken guitar playing conjures the nightmare of a new, fatally-flawed sprawl of roads and buildings: swarming locust-like, unchecked and unconsidered, over beloved landscapes.

Incidentally, in the sleevenotes Hall gives a blood’n’guts description of the struggle it took to assemble and perform The Estates. Apparently, some of the manufactured instruments continue to drift through the art world with a life of their own. The piano frames – still counter-invading the architecture – were last seen as part of a “fire sculpture”. Meanwhile, the piece itself has an additional afterlife as a reflection on Hall’s own love/hate relationship with modernism; his own playing and arrangements echoing and championing the sounds of the traditional past even as they break them up in performance and execution.

As a body of work ‘Mar-Del-Plata’ has its faults – yet judged on its parts (and at its undisciplined best), it’s a touching, passionate and diverse album. Throughout, we get the sort of peek at Hall’s open heart (warts, gooey patches and all) which most experimental musicians, hard-wired into intellectual dryness, would never risk expressing.

G.P. Hall: ‘Mar-Del-Plata’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (7 86497 26442 1)
CD-only album
Released: 1998

Buy it from:
G.P. Hall homepage or Future Music Records

G.P. Hall online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp YouTube

Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’ album (“like floodwater in the night”)

10 Feb

Jim Fox: 'Last Things'

Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’

Renewing his Cold Blue Music label for the millennium, Californian composer Jim Fox has set himself up as its figurehead, although not in a triumphal manner. Pomp and flamboyance wouldn’t sit well with Cold Blue’s explorations in New Music, and this first new release out of the Cold Blue bag doesn’t need to grab attention, anyway. The two Fox compositions on this album (slow-moving, implicatory, atmospheric and deliciously disturbing) surround you instead, like floodwater in the night.

With distractedly moving electronic traces making up the bulk of the music, The Copy Of The Drawing is rooted in chopped, diced and rearranged texts from letters sent to Mount Wilson Observatory between 1915 and 1955 while Los Angeles swelled from backwater to metropolis. These fragments are recited by Janyce Collins in a ice-queen whisper. Her cold lips brush your ear with a beautifully cool eroticism, its detachment only increasing its power. Often phrases are followed by glassy, ratcheting harmonic sound: as if a telescope, smoothly rotating on gimbals, is trying to take a fix on the target the words imply.

Slithering passes of moth-soft electronics slide around the words as if they’re unimportant, part of the ambient backchat in any place of science. Occasionally almost-vocal smudges of transparent noise ring up in (and fall away from) the foreground: although in some respects there is no foreground, just a slow sub-zero swirl of ambient hints, briefly smeared, like time-exposure photographs. Scrapes and subliminal swarms, jump-starting drifting thoughts in the narration; quick-drowning sounds like disturbances in ice-water or the imprints of decaying viola counterpoint and dying Gregorian chant.

Allegedly, The Copy Of The Drawing is non-dramatic. But Fox’s placement of these words, the stop/start fragments and interrupted clauses (“a jumbled mess – enough to give you an idea”) suggest otherwise. The phenomena of observed and notated science are often invoked with the reverence with which scientists replace religious awe, but sometimes as a kind of anchor (“light is always the same – water is H2O…”) against the misgivings whispered in brief passes elsewhere. “Self-deficient – diffused self – applied phenomena – name – danger lies in the abstract…” Before long we’ve heard statements of meticulous preparations (“I have put it in three different envelopes – airproof, fireproof, waterproof”) and chilly accounts of emotional hallucinations. “I still heard talking – I have heard babies crying and screaming – like in a photo – babies can hear me writing this – the pictures can talk to me – they’re not lonely – and it won’t stop…”

Jim Fox: 'The Copy Of The Drawing' (30-second excerpt)

Explicit disturbance is rare, and Collins’ voice remains uniformly glacial whatever the content of her script. Nonetheless, anxiety and revelation are blended throughout, with the prismatic narrative musing on thoughts such as “No-one may ever have the same knowledge – everything running up and in and out.” Certainly there’s disintegration here – a loss of assurance, causality dissolving into “a possibility – there was such a thing – invisibility… before that – all history – it doesn’t seem possible… / it’s closer if you draw a line – on that line – all depends.” At one point, Collins recites a list which explicitly fails to reduce events, phenomena and states of existence to anything tidy. “Stuff – factors – motion – the perpendicularity – the process – the parts of things – the female principles of nature – etcetera – quite incomprehensible due to its invisibility – something that is true – close by – far…”

Covertly, Fox seems to be attempting to reconcile the cosmological with the personal. Collins’ narration of astronomers’ notes seem to take on revealingly intimate suggestions (“thousands of small pushes a second – inertia is very great”) and equates the paths of cosmic debris with those of people (“one of the incoming pieces of matter – there may be more – they may travel together…”) Maybe it’s a reflection of the gravity of cities like Los Angeles – pulling in immigrants, the lost and wandering, accreting mass as it does so. Maybe it’s an idea about scientists allowing the unsettling parallels of poetry and metaphor to sneak into their notebooks and resound in those working lives which they’ve obediently sealed away from personal concerns. This is observatory music, for certain. But the question of exactly what is being observed here is an open question. It’s one which ultimately leaves you without an answer; although perhaps it does leave you with a cold, indifferently sensuous kiss.

With Last Things itself, the sky is lowering. An ominous drop, as Fox conjures up not so much a drone of bass synth as a faraway envelope of it (massed over our heads like apocalyptic cloud) and then rings us round with a distant thunderous fence of bass-register piano, rumbling tectonically and eerily, like the harbinger of the great Californian earthquake. Trapped between stooping sky and unquiet ground, we bear witness to a passionate, wordless pieta in which the dominant instrumental voice (Marty Walker’s brilliantly tortuous bass clarinet) sounds famished, and as oppressed as we are by the press of sound. Walker’s control is remarkable – he travels between delicate, near-inaudible quivers of notes; great wide splits of sound that crack with emotion; and magnificent mournful coyote calls, summoning up visions of friendless desert vistas.

Jim Fox: 'Last Things' (30-second excerpt)

Relief, of a sort, comes from Chas Smith’s pedal steel guitar. Almost choral in its breadth, it’s the one truly calming element in Fox’s musical painting. It’s a Pacific palliative which voices itself as distant balm to Walker’s painful questioning, or as a glimmer of light on the crack of the horizon. At around the eight-and-a-half minute mark, sounds like distant foghorns appear in the murk to add their own skein of warning and disquiet. More ethereal, less hungry, but hardly less of a disturbing portent are the rubbing glass rods on Rick Cox’s treated guitar, hanging dying trails of luminescence in the middle distance.

When Last Things fades out, the hope of things resolved has given way to a kind of acceptance. We’ve come to terms with the fearsome displacement and anxiety in Fox’s California soundscapes to such a degree that we’ve probably failed to notice that he’s finally resolved the music with a chordal and dynamic shift so subtle as to almost escape notice – like life settling itself in, a warm beast, around the jags, harshnesses and daily warnings of a threatening environment.

Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’
Cold Blue Music, CB0001 (800413000129)
CD/download album
Released: 5th February 2001

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music (CD) – various downloads available from Amazon and similar.

Jim Fox online:
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